John 8:31–36; Romans 3:19–28
500 hundred years ago, there lived a man who desperately wanted to see God. He was a monk – living in Germany – by the name of Martin Luther. At one point in his life, Luther was so consumed by his sins, that he tried to do just about anything he could think of to be the kind of man he thought God wanted him to be.
He fasted. He prayed. He deprived himself of sleep. He read the Bible constantly. He was obsessed by the fear of hell. He repented the same sins over and over and over again, because he didn’t believe that God had fully forgiven him.
Historians tell us that sometime in 1513, Luther had an “aha” experience. He discovered something in the book of Romans that he had not paid much attention to before. Romans 1:17. “The just shall live by faith.” The Good News that Luther discovered here is that he never could – and he never would – be acceptable to God by punishing himself, or by doing all kinds of religious things in the hopes that by doing these things he might earn God’s favor.
What Luther discovered is that we are saved – or in other words – we are made right with God – not by our good works or good intentions – but by faith in what God has already done for us in the life, death and resurrection of His Son Jesus Christ. Later Luther would write about this “aha” experience, “It was as if the gates swung open and I entered into paradise.”
With this newly found and understood insight from the Holy Scriptures, Luther set out to reform the church’s teaching on this and a host of other matters. Understand this. Luther never wanted to break away from the Catholic Church, but the church refused to listen to this upstart priest, and thus the Protestant Reformation – and the Lutheran way of understanding Christianity – was launched.
One of our readings today is from Romans 3, verses 19-28. This is a marvelous section of the Bible that we really need to pay attention to. Let’s look at a portion of it again. (cue ppt slide)
But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed…the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe…since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.
I had a discussion this past week with one of our members whose 90 year old mother recently said to him, “I just hope I’ve done enough good things to get into heaven.” And then there was the time when somebody else told me that one of his friends told him – in his youthful days – that he just had to be good enough to get into purgatory.
When I hear things like this, I want to scream. And I have to ask, do we not get it? Do we really not get what Paul is saying here in Romans – and what Luther discovered – that the just shall live by faith?
There are a lot of key phrases in these verses from Romans 3. I’m going to focus on just a few of them. First, it says, all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. That much I think we get. We are all flawed individuals. Our flaws – our sins – separate us from God. But we don’t want to be, and we don’t like being, separated from God. We actually do want to go to heaven someday – even though Christianity is more than just wanting to go to heaven someday – still, that is what we want. So somehow, this separation from God has to be overcome.
Now, in order for that separation from God to go away, we have two choices. We can try to take care of it ourselves – or we can trust someone else do that for us. Listen! One of these ways works – and the other way doesn’t.
Look at the screen again. A second key phrase here is, “they – meaning you and me – they are now justified by [God’s] grace as a gift.” By now I hope you all know what we mean when we talk about grace. Grace is God’s undeserved love and favor.
But then there’s that word justified or justification. What is that? Why do we need it? And how do we get it? Simply put, justification is a word that describes the process by which we are made right with God. And that it is something that God does for us without any help from us.
By the way, Christianity is the only religion that teaches that this is something that God does for us. All other religions teach that you have to take care of this yourself – either by being good enough – or by doing enough good deeds for others.
And even in Christianity you will find people – who are trying to take care of this themselves by working at it – or by trying to be good enough. Or like the dude who thought he just had to be good enough to get into Purgatory. (By the way – this is an fyi – Lutherans don’t believe in Purgatory. Just thought you needed to know that.) So trying to be good enough is not what the Bible teaches. This is not the way it works.
You see, here’s the problem. In the rest of life, we are always trying to validate our own goodness – or our own worthiness. For instance, that report card that shows our school grades – a resume that shows our job qualifications – a performance review that leads to a pay raise – these are examples of things that we use to validate our worth through our accomplishments.
So since this is true in the rest of life, we somehow think that this will be true for God as well. We get out our performance record, and wave it in front of God. Except in this case it’s a moral record. We try to validate our goodness to God by the things we have said and done, or perhaps the things we haven’t said and done, and the places we haven’t gone to. And we think, if we’re good enough, we’re accepted.
The problem that I always ask is this. How do you know when you’re good enough? How good do you have to be in order to be good enough? How do you know when you’ve done enough good things? And who sets the standard for these things anyway? Me? Do I set the standard for me at a level where I will know that I am good enough? Or is there something or someone else that does that?
Let me tell you something. Since God is calling the shots – since God is the One who sets the standards – do you want to know what God’s standards are? Perfection. Perfection. But when I read here that “all have sinned” doesn’t that word “all” include me? Doesn’t that include you?
Do you see why Luther struggled so hard with this? He realized that he could never do enough to make himself good enough. And he thought, “How can a righteous God demand perfection from humans who are incapable of being perfect?” Because of this, Luther once wrote that he hated God.
Well, thank God there is a way. A better way. And for us, an easier way. Again, listen to what Paul says. Two little words. “But now. But now.” What follows is radical. But now a perfect relationship IS available to us. How do we get it? Through Jesus Christ and his life and his death and his resurrection.
And it’s a gift. It’s all gift. Look again. “They – again meaning you and me –they are justified – in other words made right with God – by his grace as a gift.” Lots of big church words in this short passage, I know. But I hope by now that you all know that grace is God’s undeserved love and favor. Which means that there is nothing you or I can do to earn God’s love. There’s nothing we can do to merit God’s favor. It’s all gift.
And faith – faith believes this. Faith receives this. And faith trusts that this is true – for ME. SO we are justified –we are made right with God – by grace received through faith. Our good deeds – our efforts at self-validation – don’t count at all.
I like what Timothy Keller has to say at this point. Tim Keller is the pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian church in New York City. Listen to what he says. “If you think your good deeds are good, then they’re not good, because it implies that God owes you something. They’re not good by definition. But if you understand that your good deeds are absolutely worthless – that you need to be saved by grace, then your good deeds are good because you’re doing them for God, and not for yourself.”
Did you get that? (Read that over again.) We’ve got to stop trying to validate ourselves in front of God. The end of the struggle for self-validation comes with the realization that God has already done this for us – as a gift – through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
I like what C.S. Lewis wrote in his book Mere Christianity, “…one of the reasons I believe Christianity… [is that] it is not the sort of thing anyone would have made up.”
And that’s what’s so amazing about grace. It just flies in the face of how the rest of the world operates. You don’t have to say anything – do anything – or go anywhere to earn God’s favor.
The idea that grace and faith and salvation and justification are all gifts from God is at the heart of the Christian message. It’s not something that anyone could have made up. So just accept the fact that you are accepted. Simply accept the fact that you are loved.
This is what Luther discovered and finally understood. And it set him free from performance based standards to be right with God. And let me suggest that we change our language – we change our language from doing good works, to instead think of what we now do as bearing fruit. Good works are something that you work at. Performance based. Whereas bearing fruit is just something that flows from us naturally because of the transformed life that is ours in Jesus Christ.
SO let’s let go of our need to be approved by God based on our own performance. In fact – that is something that we need to repent of, and to ask forgiveness for. Instead let us grab hold of the gift that is ours in Jesus Christ.
Grace –mercy – peace – pardon – and forgiveness. Being made right with God is something that God does for us. And through His Son Jesus Christ God has already done this. It’s the only way that works.